For the second of its Edinburgh Festival appearances this year, the Czech Philharmonic, under its St Petersburg-born music director Semyon Bychkov, turned its attention to a single, monumental symphonic statement, the gnarled psychological discourse that is Mahler’s Seventh Symphony.
This is the orchestra that once delivered the original premiere in 1908 under Gustav Mahler’s baton. He did so despite concern over its “less than first rate” capabilities. No such worries for Bychkov, whose tight-knit control over the modern Czech Phil on Sunday presented the 80-minute symphony in colourful, manic and ultimately propulsive light.
His eye was firmly set on the endpoint, a triumphant finale still bearing the savage twists that pervaded and unhinged (for the right reasons) the previous four movements, yet through which sufficient dazzling positivity emerged to shake off Mahler’s palpable doubts and demons. This was a cathartic moment, heroic Wagner-like grandiosity mixed with equal measures of Straussian opulence and intimacy, yet the sniper fire of acid modernism constantly threatening to sour that optimism. Here, the orchestra reached blazing heights, the final moments gloriously exuberant and exhaustive.
If the performance lacked anything to that point, it was the potential for greater derring-do. Any risk seemed to be all Mahler’s, orchestral colourings that verge on extreme surrealism, a harmonic battle field that pits minor and major as almost irreconcilable warring factors. Yet, while Bychkov chose to contain much of the wilder moments, his justification came in the controlled, explosive impact of the finale.
Nor did he underplay the most distinguishing features of this work: the dark, disturbing freneticism underpinning the opening movement, the spellbinding virtuosity of the first Nachtmusik (remember the 1980s’ Castrol GTX advert?), the sardonic eccentricity of the central Scherzo, that moment of limpid reverie, the second Nachtmusik, characterised by the mandolin and guitar.
This was never a Mahler 7 that centred its intentions on simply raising the roof. Instead, it was a performance of real substance, relevance, potency and intelligence, offering one of many viewpoints this ambiguous symphony is capable of inspiring.
If every Festival needs to reinvent the wheel to justify the event’s continuing existence – and the 75th one has had to embrace some distinctive post-pandemic thinking in particular – the inclusion of the comfortingly familiar is also an important ingredient of its success, especially at the box office.
Almost a decade ago, Austrian baritone Florian Boesch and pianist Malcolm Martineau had a Spring residency in Glasgow performing the three song cycles of Schubert, and in 2016 they performed Die schone Mullerin as part of the EIF’s Queen’s Hall series. Winterreise – the most harrowing of the three – has a performance history at the Festival dating back to 1952, when Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau sang it with Gerald Moore in the Freemason’s Hall.
This year we have already heard three of the 24 songs as part of Anne Sofie von Otter’s recital, but Boesch and Martineau are the current gold standard for the cycle. The baritone seems to become the desolate protagonist in his anguished rendering of these songs, taking his listeners on what is – for once accurately deploying a very tired modern cliché – a captivating journey. Martineau is with him every step of the way, pausing or hurrying on as required, sensitive to the most subtle shifts of tone.
Less than half way though, with the last lines of Irrlicht (Will-o’-the wisp) – “Every river will reach the sea; Every sorrow, too, will reach its grave.” – Boesch almost appeared too exhausted to go on. The next song is, of course, Rest.
His voice is a huge instrument, but that power was only occasionally hinted at; instead it was the pianissimo enunciation of the most pained expressions of loss in Wilhelm Muller’s poetry that lingers longest in the mind.
The Czech Philharmonic also has a long and distinguished performance history at the Edinburgh International Festival, as has already been explored in an interview feature on VoxCarnyx. The music they brought this year, fulfilling a booking intended for the 2020 Festival, is also of a piece with concerts in previous years, and the first of them was entirely of Czech music.
Saturday’s began in appropriately celebratory style with Dvorak’s Carnival Overture, as fine a statement of the relationship between Chief Conductor Semyon Bychkov and the musicians as you might wish – huge forces making an immediate impact with precision playing.
The programme ended with Janacek’s Glagolitic Mass, featuring Aidan Oliver’s Edinburgh Festival Chorus, three Czechs and one Russian as soloists and some terrific organ-playing. The organist, Daniela Valtova Kosinova, soprano Evelina Dobraceva and tenor Ales Briscein understandably won the biggest cheers at the end, alongside the choir and the orchestra’s brass. Bychkov shaped a work that is often seen as eccentric with great care, and the impact of both the Credo and the Sanctus was huge.
The conductor’s wife Marielle Labeque and her sister Katia were the soloists on Martinu’s Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra, and they are also no strangers to the Festival. There was vast energy in their playing in the outer movements, but also great tenderness in the Adagio in partnership with the orchestra’s winds. An encore of the fourth movement of Philip Glass’s Concerto for Two Pianos, which they premiered with the LA Phil and Dudamel, was a terrific bonus.
All Festival-goers will be hoping that the next EIF director, Nicola Benedetti, renews the invitations to the Czech Phil, Bychkov and Florian Boesch and Martineau. Is it wrong to hope that the orchestra might be invited to play Prokofiev and the baritone asked to sing Gershwin and Kurt Weill?
Conductor Semyon Bychkov and members of the Czech Philharmonic talked to Keith Bruce ahead of their Edinburgh Festival concerts
Between the Philharmonia at its start and the Philadelphia when it ends, the 75th Edinburgh International Festival has another orchestral residency when the Czech Philharmonic plays two concerts under the baton of its Chief conductor and Music Director Semyon Bychkov.
The relationship between the Czech orchestra and the Festival is an important one, with regular visits over the years under many of the great conductors with whom it has been associated. Almost always the concerts have included Czech repertoire by Smetana, Janacek and Dvorak, often alongside the music of Gustav Mahler.
In 1969 the recently-appointed Vaclav Neumann was on the podium, returning in 1983 in partnership with Jiri Belohlavek for a concert featuring the piano duo of Katia and Marielle Labeque. Belohlavek conducted two of the three concerts in 1991, but Janacek’s epic Glagolitic Mass was under the baton of Sir Charles Mackerras. That same team returned at the end of the 1998 festival and in 2000 played two Usher Hall concerts and in the pit at the Playhouse for Jiri Kylian’s Nederlands Dans Theater.
The story actually goes back to the years of the Festival’s founding, when the Czech Phil’s conductor Rafael Kubelik, who had maintained a defiant attitude to the Nazis during the Second World War, decided he could not live under another tyrannical regime following the Communist coup and used the opportunity of conducting a Glyndebourne production of Mozart’s Don Giovanni at the King’s Theatre in 1948 to defect.
The orchestra will this year play the music of their homeland on Saturday, with the Labeque sisters once again the soloists in a programme that also includes the Glagolitic Mass with the Edinburgh Festival Chorus. On Sunday we will hear Mahler’s Symphony No 7, a work the orchestra premiered in Prague in 1908, under the baton of the composer. Conducting both concerts this weekend is their Music Director since 2018, Semyon Bychkov, who is married to Marielle Labeque and a Russian who swiftly and eloquently condemned the invasion of Ukraine at a time when others were equivocal.
In common with many public buildings in Prague, the Czech Phil’s concert hall, the Rudolfinum, displays the colours of the Ukraine flag in solidarity with the people there. This is no distant conflict for the people of the Czech Republic, and the orchestra’s Chief Conductor was an important voice at the start of the war, issuing a statement headlined “Silence in the face of evil becomes its accomplice”.
In April of this year, on the morning after a filled Rudolfinum heard a concert of a contemporary symphony by English composer Julian Anderson, Prague Panoramas, a Mozart Piano Concerto played by Vikingur Olafsson and Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, Bychkov was happy to talk about both the current situation, his relationship with the land of his birth, and the recent history of an orchestra with which he clearly enjoys a fond relationship.
Resident in France, he was settled into a late freelance career and not minded to seek a contractual post with any orchestra when he was approached by the musicians, following the death of Belohlavek. “I couldn’t refuse 124 orphans,” he says, smiling.
“The pandemic took away many of our plans, including an invitation to Edinburgh in 2020, and also a visit to Moscow to perform there. That was before this tragedy started and now there is no discussion of that, either possible or desired.”
Concerts in the Russian capital would have been a major event for the orchestra and for its Chief Conductor, who was a prize-winning young talent in St Petersburg before leaving for a career in the West.
“I left because I wanted to be free to live the way I wanted to live, free to think the way I want, free to express myself the way I want, and free to make music that is important to me, or not to make it because it is not important to me,” he says, before acknowledging another side to his decision.
“Antisemitism exists everywhere, the difference there was that it was institutionalised within the state. I saw my father suffer from that, before I was given opportunities that were amazing and without precedent. But 50 years later my answer, and my decision, hasn’t changed.”
“A country that refuses to recognise the dark pages of its history and accept the necessity to atone for them will never be able to come out of enslavement to those dark pages. Russia lost 27 million people during World War Two, but more in the gulags of Lenin and Stalin – yet people there are nostalgic for Stalin.”
Bychkov conducted the BBC Symphony Orchestra at the 2019 Festival, in a concert that included Mahler 4, and he was on his first big European tour post-pandemic with the Czech orchestra when the Ukrainian invasion happened. It changed the dynamic of the dates, he says, with London’s Barbican and concerts in Berlin and Vienna quickly selling out.
There can be little argument that it is in the company of the orchestras of those cities that the Prague orchestra belongs. Some of the musicians in the Czech Philharmonic are long-served enough to have played under Neumann and under Mackerras in Edinburgh.
Oboist Ivan Sequardt says: “Touring is an essential part of our work. We love the Rudolfinum, but there are halls that are better suited for bigger pieces: Leipzig Gewandhaus, Birmingham Symphony Hall and the halls in Yokohama and Tokyo in Japan. Our home venue has limited space and some compositions need to be played elsewhere.”
Just the same, Sequardt is not entirely delighted to be taking Mahler 7 to the Festival. “Agencies want it because it was premiered here in Prague, which is a shame. It is a great piece up to the last movement, which is too long and full of unnatural and pointless repetitions. Maestro Neumann was right to cross out some of those as a favour to the audience. I like Symphonies 5, 4, and 1 much better.”
The orchestra is getting to know them all again, because it is in the midst of recording the whole cycle for Pentatone, following the success of an acclaimed 7-disc set of the music of Tchaikovsky. Symphony No 4 was released in April and 1, 2, 5 and 9 are already “in the can”.
For Bychkov, Mahler was an obvious choice.
“Mahler is viewed as an Austrian composer because his later years were spent in Vienna, although he was born in this country and his DNA is the DNA of the Czech Phil. During the pandemic, Simon Rattle came to work with the orchestra and described it as ‘the perfect Mahler orchestra’”, he says with pride.
“When I first arrived, the agreement we made was for me to spend 16 weeks of the year with the orchestra, but it has never been less than 20. I am here not because I must but because I want to. Music is existential for the Czech people, as we see in the audience as well as the orchestra.”
“We really appreciate collaboration, and conductors who treat us a partners,” says Sequardt. His colleague Jaroslav Pondelicek from the viola section adds that the orchestra is more flexible than it used to be in its accommodation of the desires of conductors.
“The Czech Phil sound is very tender and transparent,” says Pondelicek, “and Bychkov has added more passion and energy, especially to the strings.”
In the recording studio, he says, the conductor always wants long takes of whole movements but will not hesitate to ask for them again if he is not happy.
“His preparation is fantastic, with great detail. He wants the best result possible and it is great value for us that he will not be satisfied if we play less than our best.”
With a Japanese flautist and a Spanish double bass player, there is evidence of international recruitment within the ranks of the Czech Phil, but it is much less than we are familiar with in the UK.
The players see that as a strength, and so does the conductor.
“All but two are Czech, so there is a continuity in the way the musicians think about phrasing. We want to preserve that because it makes the orchestra unique. And the orchestra is on the young side but very mixed age-wise, which is lucky because it cannot be arranged – it is an natural process of regeneration,” says Bychkov.
70 years old this year, Bychkov has conducted many of the world’s finest orchestras, across North America and Europe and speaks from vast experience.
“If an orchestra is not loved there is nothing you can do about it,” he says. “But this orchestra is loved, first of all by its home audience – and we feel it every time we come onstage by the way they greet us and how they listen – and it is loved elsewhere as well, and that helps. Not everyone has this privilege.”
Czech Philharmonic and Semyon Bychkov are at the Usher Hall, Edinburgh, on August 20 and 21 as part of this year’s Edinburgh International Festival. eif.co.uk